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Thursday Night Preview: Who Will Prevail in an AFC North Clash?

Like last week, Thursday Night Football is keeping things tight to the vest and within the division as the Pittsburgh Steelers head to face the Cleveland Browns in an AFC North matchup.

From our power rankings, this should be a lopsided affair. The road Steelers check in ninth, while Cleveland slides all the way down to 25th. Can the Browns use some home field magic to keep things close?

Let's dig in and find out.

Quarterback Breakdown

Unfortunately, this game isn't likely to feature superstar play from the quarterback position.

Presumably, second-year signal-caller Baker Mayfield would have a decided edge in this matchup over Mason Rudolph, but the numbers tell a different story. Among the 35 quarterbacks with 125 or more drop backs, Rudolph outpaces Mayfield by a wide margin in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back -- 0.09 to -0.04. Yup, you read that right. Every time Mayfield drops back to pass, he has actually hurt his team in 2019.

In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP -- the story is better for Mayfield, as he has a 42.81% mark versus Rudolph's 41.98% clip.

In looking at average intended air yards (the average air yards a passer throws on all attempts), this one isn't much of a storyteller. Both Mayfield (7.9) and Rudolph (7.6) have pretty average marks.

With neither quarterback lighting the world on fire, what can we glean from the respective running games?

Running Back Play

With James Conner set to return for the Steelers, this will feature two ground games that haven't really hit their stride yet.

While the Steelers' rushing attack ranks dead last via our per-play metrics, the Browns have been slightly better, ranking 15th. Nick Chubb and his 173 carries have led the team, but they haven't been all that effective -- he sports a -0.06 Rushing NEP per carry mark so far this season, and Conner isn't too far behind at -0.10 (97 carries).

Both running backs haven't been huge factors in the passing game, either. While Conner has missed some time, both have recorded under 30 catches this year. However, it's worth noting Jaylen Samuels has been a big factor with Conner out, and Kareem Hunt saw nine targets in his Cleveland debut.

Two struggling offenses may not light up the scoreboard -- how do the two defenses fare?

Defensive Matchup

If there's one area that Pittsburgh should be able to clean up on, it's the defensive end.

This has been an absolutely elite unit, ranking third overall, fourth against the pass, and second against the run, per numberFire's metrics. With the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick during the year, a good unit got even better.

Cleveland? Not so much. They rank 25th overall, 18th against the pass and 26th against the run.

One positive for both of these units is getting pressure on the opposing passer. In reviewing Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate, Pittsburgh has an excellent mark of 10.1% (second), while Cleveland ain't too far behind at ninth (7.7%).

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